Hugh Manson – Technology That Rocks
Written by Joff Alexander-Frye, Photography by Pip Andersen
If he passed you on the high street, it’s possible that you wouldn’t recognise him but, over the last forty or so years, Exeter’s Hugh Manson has innovated, designed and built some of the most ground-breaking technology in the music industry.
Perhaps it’s the fact that he has a masterfully creative mind and a complete disregard for anything less than perfect, or maybe it’s his laid-back persona and approachable demeanor. Either way, Hugh Manson has endeared himself to some of the world’s most popular and revered musicians, whilst staying ferociously loyal to his customer base here in Exeter.
Indeed, Hugh finds himself on the auto-dials of rock legends like Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, Dave Grohl of Nirvana and Foo Fighters fame and of course, Devon’s own Matt Bellamy, lead guitarist of Muse.
So, it was with much excitement, a little trepidation, and a sizeable man crush that I met with Hugh in his legendary guitar shop on Exeter’s Fore Street, to discuss his unique and successful career.
So Hugh, tell me a little about how Mansons Guitars started?
I started my journey making guitars through my brother Andy; he’d asked my parents for a guitar and, for fear that he may want to become a hippy; this was back in the late 60’s, my mother said ‘no!’
I’ve heard it said that necessity is the mother of invention and this was true for Andy, who decided that if my parents weren’t going to buy him a guitar, he would build one himself.
He then sold the first guitar that he had built, made another one and then sold that too and it sort of snowballed from there. There were no specialist courses for building guitars at the time, so Andy went to the London College of Furniture where there was a Harpsichord and Lute making course and basically taught himself.
He qualified and started building guitars professionally, whilst I completed my degree in design and art at Goldsmiths London. It was at this point that Andy rang me up and said ‘I keep getting orders for electric guitars, but I don’t really want to build them. Would you like to do that for me?’ It was a no-brainer really and I’ve been building guitars for a living ever since.
So was there a ‘big break’ or a key moment in your early years as a company?
One great story springs straight to mind. My brother was working from home making guitars in the early days and my mum, who always tried to help as best she could, said to him one day ‘Oh, there is a pop star that lives down the road. Why don’t you go and knock on his door and ask if he has any work for you?’
So Andy did as he was told and asked the lady, who answered the door down the street if the pop star that lived at the house had any work for him. The woman replied ‘Well, my husband is a musician if that is what you mean, I’ll go and ask him’. And that turned out to be Mo, the wife of John Paul Jones; the bassist from Led Zeppelin!
John gave Andy some repair work on one of his guitars that day, then gifted Andy a ticket to one of Led Zeppelin’s 1976 concerts in London. That’s where he noticed that John was switching between three instruments; a twelve-string guitar, a six-string guitar and a mandolin. So Andy thought ‘what he needs is all three instruments in one three-necked instrument’. So he went home, built one and then sold it to John. That was the start of a great relationship with him, that led to me being his guitar-technician on tour for the last 25 years. It also led to him purchasing in the region of 40 bespoke instruments from me and my brother.
The last thing that I made for him was a foldable three-necked mandolin. There’s nothing too strange or unique that we won’t build!
And now, 40 years later, you are extremely well connected in the industry and particularly well known for your innovative design and use of technology. Tell me some more about this part of your journey?
Well, the connection with John Paul Jones meant that when he formed the supergroup; Them Crooked Vultures, along with Dave Grohl and Josh Homme, the frontman of Queens of The Stone Age, I naturally spent a lot of time with them in rehearsals and on tour. Dave Grohl is a thoroughly stunning and beautiful human being. I’ll never forget that when we were on tour in America, attached to the rear of the tour bus was Dave’s trailer which carried his motorbikes and his barbecue. He would cook for the band, their families and the crew. He is an amazing guy and it sort of made sense that I would make a guitar for him along the way.
And, of course, there’s the more local Devon connection with Matt Bellamy from Muse.
Well, yes. They all grew up in Teignmouth and attended Exeter College. It was a very common occurrence for them to come into the shop and try out some of our equipment. I even remember one day that I was busy building a guitar in the workshop. Someone came into the practice room of the shop and was playing bass guitar very loudly. So loudly, in fact, that I put my head around the door and shouted ‘WILL YOU TURN IT DOWN!’
Little did I know that this was Chris Wolstenholme, Muse’s bass player. That was the start of a beautiful working relationship! From there, Matt Bellamy, the band’s guitarist, started asking me to design and build really interesting and innovative guitars for him; guitars with special effects built into them, rather than the effects being separately contained in pedals which would usually be at the feet of a performer on stage.
This made for some crazy designs, including fitting customisable screens into guitars which the player could use to affect their guitar sound whilst playing. It helped that one of my good friends; Ron Joyce, is locally based and is an electronics guru. He helped me to design and pioneer this technology. I would come to him with an idea and he would help to make it a reality. One of the guitars that we designed and built together was recently dubbed ‘among the most technologically advanced and innovative guitars of all time’. Whilst that may be true, there is so much more potential for that particular guitar, but also for a lot of the other ones that we have designed.
So, tell me about what has inspired you to make such innovative products?
Some of the ideas come from artists themselves but you’d be surprised how many innovative ideas come from members of the public too. I’m forever getting people coming into my store with sketches and crazy ideas of how to make something unique or ground-breaking. You then have to interpret their basic idea into something that matches their vision, but is also possible to build!
On a personal note, being innovative and creative is the fun part of guitar making. I feel that my purpose in life is to make things that didn’t previously exist. It’s as simple as that. We always say at Mansons that we sell dreams here. My job is simply to provide or build products and technology that allow people to realise their dreams.
And what advice would you give to anyone else who has a dream to design or build something innovative and different?
Find excellent people to work or partner with. You can’t do everything yourself; it just simply is not possible. I’ve heard people say that you should never go into partnership with others, but I disagree entirely. Pick the right person or people and you’re set up for success.
I’d also say that, in some ways, don’t try to re-invent the wheel. I’m not saying you shouldn’t think outside of the box but get the basics right first. And I’m a firm believer that you should never accept anything but perfection; customers will come back time and again if they know that your standards are as high, if not higher, than theirs.
Essentially, the best innovations appeal to people’s emotions and senses. If you can deliver a product that performs the right function and engages with someone at a deeper level, then you are onto a winner.
And finally, don’t be intimidated by competitors either. Learn from them. Be inspired by them. But don’t be afraid of them. Just make sure that you are doing something unique and innovative to set yourself apart from the crowd.
Find out more about my personal favourite guitar shop at www.mansons.co.uk, @mansonsguitarshop on Facebook or @mansonsguitars on Twitter.